Never Letting Go

2011 Christmas Fiction Gift Exchange

Buffy the Vampire Slayer story

For: DeckerM

From: MavenAlysse

Inspired by: 'Alone You Breathe' by Savatage (used a few of the lyrics at the beginning)

Buffy: the Vampire Slayer

[AU end of third season and fourth season (Anya didn't leave before the Ascension – she stayed until the Initiative were at their high point.)]

disclaimer: I am not Joss Wendon – I do not own any of the characters from Buffy: the Vampire Slayer (::sigh::)

Thanks to Keely, Courtney, Crystal, and Sarah for beta and editing for me.

Never Letting Go

Nearly a year had passed since she'd last stepped foot in this accursed town. Only one person could make her even consider returning; which surprised her. For so long she only considered herself; depended on herself; it came as a shock that another person made enough of an impression upon her to change the way she thought or did things. He somehow got under her skin during the time they'd dated.

Over the past few months she swore she heard his voice in her head – giving advice or gently chiding her. It made her feel decidedly odd. So, she returned to confront him; secure that once she saw him again she could finally get him out of her system. She just never expected to find him here.

For a long moment, she couldn't bring herself to step closer to the grave. A murder of crows perched in the tree shading the spot and their raucous cries chilled her. At some unseen signal, the birds took flight with a rustle of wings, darting across the smooth manicured lawn of the cemetery before alighting within the branches of another tree. Anya ventured closer, the tears in her eyes blurring the name chiseled into stone. "I thought you'd wait for me." In a fit of anger, she brought her hands to slam upon the top of the tombstone. "You were supposed to wait for me!" Her shriek echoed, sending more birds winging away in panic.

"He did. You're the one who left. Remember?"

She whirled about, hands up defensively. A young man stood behind her, dark of hair and eye, hands stuffed into well-worn carpenter jeans. A dark green long sleeved shirt covered a black t-shirt. A silver cross hung from his neck. He gazed at the grave, but she couldn't make out his expression in the dwindling light.

"Xander?" She whispered, head tilted, eyes narrowed as she took in the figure. She blinked hard to clear her vision. He didn't respond, just moved past her and settled himself on the ground, legs crossed Indian style, his back against the tree, hands now fiddling with a piece of wood.

"What did you expect, anyway?"

Backhanding the tears on her cheeks, she turned to glare at the young man, arms crossed. "What do you mean?"

"It's not his fault he died before you returned. You know how dangerous it is around here. It's the reason you took off to begin with. He wouldn't have gone with you, either. Not as long as he knew he could help."

"But..." she trailed off, her voice soft and confused, but a spark of calculation shone deep in her eyes. She took a deep breath while focusing on his relaxed form, her gaze tracing well-remembered features. "You killed yourself." It came out more of a question than a statement, and she sniffed hard wishing for a handkerchief.

The familiar lopsided grin sent a sharp ache through her. "You so sure about that?"

Anya slid to the ground, huddling against the monument. One hand unconsciously traced the engraved letters of his name as she stared at the boy she'd come to love, but who she'd tried so hard to forget. "I returned two days ago. It took a while to locate where your group meets since the school had blown up." She nodded in respect, "I know I didn't mention it before, good job on that. You fulfilled many adolescent dreams that day."

Xander grinned but remained quiet.

"When I tracked them down at the Magic Box, I spent some time listening through the window. We didn't exactly part on a good note – and Buffy and Willow had made no bones about the fact that they disliked me."

"They liked you better than they did Cordelia."

"Makes you wonder about their priorities when it comes to dating – snarky cheerleader versus an eleven hundred year old ex-vengeance demon, and they approve of the ex-demon?" She shook her head, the levity dropping from her as she continued the story. "Willow was crying. Said it was their fault that you'd died; that you'd been moody and distant lately. They never saw you much except at research meetings, especially since they were so busy with college, and you were just a townie." Anya paused, catching her breath, trying to loosen the knot in her chest and stomach. "Willow yelled at Buffy. Told her they never should have pushed you away. That the slaying was what kept you from going over the edge. Buffy replied that maybe Willow should leave, too. It really looked like she might. Her face was all red and her eyes looked dark. Neither are very stable in my opinion. Giles wasn't there, so I don't know what he thinks of the whole mess." Anya gave a shake of her head, refocusing her thoughts. "It had rained for nearly a week. After not hearing from you for five days, Willow stopped by your apartment and found you at the kitchen table. You'd thrown it all away and slashed your wrists." The last was said disdainfully, though she could hear the hurt she was trying to suppress.

Xander snorted in derision, startling her. "You've studied people for over a thousand years – especially men. You know their weak points and what could make them collapse. You knew Xander. Tell me. Do you honestly believe that he would have killed himself like that based on the conditions you've just described?"

The two sat quietly while the ex-demon set aside her hurt and confusion and sorted through things. Xander's childhood had not been sunshine and puppies. As a child, he would have had ample reason to off himself – or call upon Halfrek, the vengeance demon over Lost Childhoods. But he'd pressed on. After staking his best friend, he could have fallen into depression and allowed himself to be taken out by a vampire, but Xander had used the pain to focus on destroying the enemy.

"No. If you were going to kill yourself, you would have made sure to do it while fighting. Taking on a large group of vampires or facing off with a demon on your own. You would have died while trying to protect someone. And you definitely would have taken an honor guard with you. You're loyal that way, and determined. Alone in your apartment isn't your style."

"Exactly," Xander nodded, his posture one of pleased approval.

She leaned up against the stone, her hands dropping into her lap. "So, how did you die?"

He gave a sardonic grin. "You tell me. You know I'm not really him. This," he waved a hand indicating himself, "is just an illusion wrought by your own mind of what you know to be true. The Xander you knew wouldn't have taken his own life. Not the way the others believe. Therefore, someone must have made it look like suicide – or given him a valid reason for self-sacrifice. Find out. Then you can set him to rest."

"If I do, will you go?" She glanced at the stone, her fingers reaching up of their own accord to caress the name.

"Do you want me to?"

Anya thought a long moment then shook her head, her voice quiet as she locked gazes with him once more. "No."

He smiled, the expression lighting his countenance and bringing an answering smile to her own. "Then I'll stay for as long as you need me."

She nodded, the tightness in her chest easing. She didn't care if he was a delusion or a fantasy she'd created. Xander had been the only one willing to see past what she'd been and saw what she could be.

Before she'd run off, he'd tried to awaken her conscience.

Now, he would be her conscience.

Standing up, she brushed the grass and leaves from her skirt, her face determined, blood singing for revenge. She would discover what truly happened and make the ones responsible pay.

888

Discovering Xander's old apartment still unoccupied, Anya wasted no time securing it for herself. She needed a place to stay, and the familiar surroundings felt comfortable. As an added bonus, it would make any scrying spells she tried more successful.

Making a mental list of supplies she needed, the ex-vengeance demon made her way to her best bet for information – Willy's bar.

"Willy." She sat primly upon the bar stool, ignoring most of the evenings clientele with ease of long practice.

"Anyanka." The rotund barkeep nodded respectfully; well aware that the seemingly young woman across from him may be human again, but still deadly when riled. "What can I do for you this evening?"

"A Whirling Dervish and some information, please." She slid a fifty dollar bill onto the bar.

"Coming right up." Within moments, a lurid blue drink with a solid ribbon of purple smoked in front of her. Taking the offered straw, she expertly began drinking the purple liquid first, fastidiously avoiding the blue – one had to drink the antidote prior or risk being permanently subjected to the spinning effects the drink produced in humans. "What kind of info you need?"

"I found Xander's grave. It says he died in mid-July. I left in January. It's December now. I want to know went on while I've been gone."

"It's a long story," he hedged.

She pulled out two more fifties. "I'll make it worth your time."

Willy smiled, palming the cash. "That's what I missed about you Anyanka, a business woman to the very end."

"Money talks. Why exert myself and end up with a resentful ally?" She narrowed her eyes. "So?"

He grinned, showing crooked teeth. "You left just as the Initiative was really bringing the hammer down on the demon population. Spike wasn't the only vampire to get a chip stuck in his head – he just seems to be the only one left. The others were dusted, or dusted themselves, long ago. Those military goons nearly broke the group up. They tried to recruit Summers; she was dating a squad leader. From the scuttlebutt that trickled down, they weren't sure if they wanted to recruit or study Rosenberg. They were still debating when they were destroyed. Seems they weren't sure whether Harris was completely human or not seeing how he had kept up with Summers for as long as he had. They were going to bring him in, but never managed it though. No one could figure out why not. Then the witch's wolf was taken."

"Oz? I thought he left to control the wolf after that fiasco with Veruca?"

He nodded. "Yeah, but he came back. And boy was he pissed that Rosenberg had a new squeeze. Wolfed out during the day. Soldiers spotted him and took him in."

Finished with the purple, she sipped the blue liquid next, savoring the mild euphoria being dizzy gave her. "Then?"

Willy snorted. "What do you think? They stormed the castle, retrieved their friend, and ended the military portion of the Initiative. But there was a human/demon/cyborg hybrid running around causing problems and making more of itself. Some mad scientist style experiment gone awry. Near impossible to defeat. Spike mentioned they did some spell to help amplify the Slayer's abilities so she could go toe-to-toe with the thing. She tore it apart. The group released all the prisoners. Some of them were pretty messed up. There were even some kids. It took some time to get everything settled; some of the clans were super pissed."

"I can imagine. I'm surprised no one made a wish for retribution."

"Well, if there had been one, I don't know who it was aimed at." Another thing to check if she could. "I don't know of anything else. Not much information can be had during the summer lull. All I know is two months later your boy was dead. They say he killed himself."

"You believe it?" She studied him carefully.

Willy took his time answering. "No. I don't. Not sure what happened, but there's no way he killed himself. He was in here two days beforehand." Willy huffed a laugh. "He was also a businessman. He traded for information rather than trying to muscle or intimidate. Not that he couldn't. I've seen that boy be downright frightening under the right circumstances. But that day – he was serious, but not grim. I wouldn't have pegged him as suicidal. Well, no more than normal. No one who willingly slays with Summers can be said to be on an even keel, ya know? He got his info and was on his way." The barkeep thought a moment. "If I remember correctly, there was a Tieba demon here that day."

"Those are the empathic demons, right? They feed on negative emotions?"

"Right. Haven't seen it around lately, but they tend to congregate near bars and malls around the holidays. Goes by the name of Phielas."

"Thanks Willy." She finished her drink, setting down one more fifty. "One last thing. What information was Xander looking for?"

"He wanted to know if there had been any word on a secondary holding site the Initiative might have had for prisoners. He was under the impression that not all those who'd been captured had been found and released when they destroyed the compound. I'd heard some rumors, had a line on someone who might know something, but nothing concrete. He took the info and that's the last I saw of him." He shrugged and headed down the bar to attend to another customer.

Anya sauntered out of the bar. She knew Phielas from before she'd lost her power center. His species fed off the energy provided by negative emotions. Anya checked his favorite haunts, finally locating the Tieba near the psychiatric ward of Sunnydale Hospital. "Phielas."

"Anyanka. And to what do I attribute the pleasure of your company today?" The humanoid blinked pale blue orbs in a flirtatious way, a thin yellow tongue flickered from a toothless maw scenting the air. The being moaned, for though she looked perfectly composed, pleasant even, a wave of anger poured off the woman in harsh waves. Delicious.

"Xander Harris. July 16, 2000. Tell me what you sensed."

Phielas flinched taking a step back. He couldn't bullshit her, she knew too much about his species in general and himself in particular. Armed with a person's name and the date, she knew he had to give her accurate information. "Anger. Determination. Concern." He shot her a baleful glare but added, "No. He wasn't depressed. And the determination wasn't one connected to ending a life – not his nor anyone else. I've been around him before. He's never dropped to the level of self-termination. Not even after staking his best friend. Not even when in a stand-off with Jack. Though often full of rage and a bit careless with personal safety – especially in defense of others – he's not one to suicide."

"Thank you." Anya deliberately dredged up the anger and horror she'd felt at learning of Xander's death and projected it at the Tieba. Phielas leaned against the wall, eyelids drooping, tongue flickering rapidly as he fed. A satisfied sigh emanated from him as she turned away. She had supplies to purchase.

888

The kitchen table had been pushed to one side and a large silver bowl filled with water sat in the center of the room. Four candles anointed with certain herbs and oils burned at the cardinal points arranged so that from her vantage point only the flames reflected within the water. Speaking an incantation, she waited. Staring intently at the bowl, she should see what happened in this room on July 18, 2000 reflected between the images of the flames. If another magic user tried to hide their doings, the water would become murky, it would be like getting static on a television set.

A moment later her lips pressed together in a tight grim line.

888

She needed more information. She knew Xander kept a journal; he'd filled several of them over the years and stored them in his rented unit.

Xander's "loving" family had found the storage unit first and ransacked it. Anya had a good idea of what Xander owned and calculated they'd made off with nearly seven thousand dollars worth of comics and collectibles. Their greed and inherent laziness ensured they'd never wait for a decent bid; she wouldn't be surprised if they dumped the whole lot down at the local pawn shop. If they were lucky, they'd get maybe two grand. She snorted in disgust. Amateurs. The disgust grew as she looked at the torn boxes, discarded clothing, and broken knick-knacks that littered the floor. Their son was dead, and they treated his belongings like it was garbage. Even demons were more respectful of their dead. They better pray she didn't come across them while she was in town. Maybe she could help out Halfrek by doing something horrible to Xander's 'family'.

Pacing, she frowned, tapping her bottom lip with an index finger. "Something is off."

"The room's too small." Xander leaned against the side wall and pointed toward the back. "A good four feet is missing. False wall, probably."

Anya nodded. "It makes sense. You collected weapons, too. You even still had items appropriated from the army base. If your folks had found that, not only would they now reside in jail for attempting to sell stolen property, but this place would be either wiped clean or sealed tight." She ran her fingers lightly over the wall, looking for a seam or a catch that would open the false wall. Eyes widened at the distinct tingle indicative of magic. Opening her senses ,she noted that the wall was actually a well-crafted barrier spell. "Very clever," she praised. "This type of barrier spell is decidedly difficult to dispel. In fact, the only ones who can get the barrier to do anything are the caster and three others keyed into the wards." She frowned, uncertain who had access. "So how do I get in?"

She felt her jaw drop as a flare of eldritch light created a doorway in the previously smooth wall. "Wait. You included me into your security system?"

Xander joined her at the doorway as she took in the shelf-lined area; each shelf packed with boxes and crates of various sizes. "Xander always trusted you. If any of this was needed, you would have made sure it got to the right person at the right time." He flashed a wry grin. "Besides, would you trust Buffy or the others with higher weapons?"

She ran a gentle hand over the crate that had 'Rocket Launcher – Property of the U.S. Army' stenciled on the side and shuddered. "No. Not really."

"There's your answer, then."

Other than the three or four dark green boxes and crates obviously from the military base, none of the other boxes were labeled in English. Instead, a series of dots and slash marks decorated the right hand edge of each box. Leaning closer, she flushed in pleasure. "You remembered."

"You took the time to teach him. Why wouldn't he use it? Besides, it makes a great code."

After coming across a prophecy written in Ogham, a phonic system used by the Celts and Picts before Latin replaced it, Anya figured it couldn't hurt to have more than one person able to read and understand it. She spent nearly a month teaching Xander the system. He was a quick study. She'd leave him notes and rewarded him when he translated them correctly, making him highly motivated to learn. Not many knew the language anymore, and fewer could read it, so it made a great way to encode messages as well. While she was at it, she taught Xander Old Norse, her original language. The runes cropped often enough that it was a logical decision. If Giles knew what they were up to, he never said anything, but she noticed that during research parties she and Xander would end up with the books in older languages, leaving Willow to concentrate on the books in Latin, and Buffy with the ones translated into English.

A fourth of the boxes held weapons: knives, swords, crossbows and bolts; Guns and appropriate ammunition; even some grenades. She was nervous to check the large dark green crates lying on the bottom shelves; Xander liked his explosions.

A few boxes held artifacts found in lairs that weren't necessarily dangerous in and of themselves, but really shouldn't be out in the general population.

One shelf held first aid equipment that wouldn't expire: bandages, splints, ice and heat packs, wraps, neosporin, needle and thread, and sutures. It looked like Xander had raided the contents of an ambulance; which he probably did. The paramedics, doctors, and nurses in town had a distressing habit of letting their patients die. Both Xander and Willow had enough medical knowledge from patching each other up over the years they could both pass the EMT exam with flying colors if they chose to do so.

The rest of the shelves held boxes of books. Before Graduation, Xander had conscripted the younger students into emptying the library of all the esoteric books Giles had contributed. That way, none of the important resources were destroyed when they blew the place up to destroy the Mayor. The Watcher journals, books on prophesy, tomes of magic, and the rest had all been safely stored, though she didn't know why Xander still had them. Shouldn't Giles have them?

Finally, she found the box that held all of Xander's personal mementos. Items that couldn't be easily replaced: social security card, birth certificate, copy of his transcripts and test scores, bank book and investment portfolio, a few pictures of a young man with light brown hair (Jesse), group class pictures, a few letters, some of her own notes to him, and several journals. Scooping up the journals, Anya willed the barrier closed, nodding in satisfaction when it once again appeared to be a blank wall. The rent for the unit had been paid through the rest of the year. She'd decide what to do with everything before leaving town again. For now, she wanted to see what clues she could get from Xander's journals.

888

The shattering of dishes against the walls of the small kitchen didn't so much as even raise an eyebrow from the neighbors. After all, it was three in the morning and the residents of Sunnydale had long learned to ignore strange sounds after dark. If you wanted to live, you made sure not to witness anything. Anya's shouts and shrieks as she flung plates and glasses kept her from tapping into her magic and destroying anyone who even looked at her sideways.

The entry burned in her mind: 'Journal Entry: [June 3rd] ... Everyone thinks I'm on my road trip, but I had one thing I needed to take care of before I leave. I traded my complete run of mint condition 'Secret Wars' comics to a Hallon demon Willy got me in touch with. J'eaon put up the security barrier spell in my storage unit and had no problem with linking it up with Anya, Clem and Mrs. S. Said it'd stay up for as long as any of us are alive or when I chose to deactivate it. I'm putting all the Watcher books and weaponry in it. The parental units have been nosing around and I don't need them pawning the stuff while I'm gone. I tried to tell Giles I had his books, but he keeps putting me off – so I can at least make sure no one else can get to them. That and anything else we find around here.'

Xander was alive. He had to be. The very nature of that type of security system done by Hallon demons meant that if he died then the others keyed into the wards would have been notified. Even if Mrs. Summers hadn't understood what that notification signified, she and Clem both would have known.

Anya had spoken with Clem on her first night back in town; the peaceful demon had cried when he told her that Xander had died, but had not mentioned that he knew of the items Xander had stored. A fair being, Clem would never consider trying to keep things all to himself and the notification would have told him that both Anya and Mrs. Summers were a part of the wards.

So, the notification to make him aware of the security system at the moment of Xander's death was never received. Therefore, Xander had not committed suicide, and for some reason he'd allowed everyone to think he was dead for the past five months. She shrieked again.

Xander stood in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest as he stared at her. "You really believe that he would be so cruel as to let everyone think he was dead?"

That broke through her anger, and she paused in mid-throw. Panting, she tried to reign in her anger. Looking at the situation logically, she shook her head. "No. You wouldn't do that to your friends. You wouldn't torture them that way." She put the plate back on the counter and pushed sweaty hair out of her eyes. "If you could have told someone, you would have. Since you haven't, then it's because you aren't able to. Either you're incapacitated in some manner, or imprisoned." She took a deep breath, calm once more. Striding out of the kitchen, she collapsed back onto the couch and grabbed the journal again. Somewhere within its pages was the clue she needed to find him. She just knew it.

888

Journal Entry: [January 28] … I can't believe that Giles would give anyone to the Initiative. Nobody deserves that. Not even Spike. Not even Angel deserves to be handed over to those torturing bastards. Ethan's caused problems – even potentially deadly ones, but... Okay, so, being turned into a Fyarl demon and nearly slayed could make a person cranky. If he hated Rayne so much, why not just kill him? Riley's a wuss, and Buffy might trust him, saying he'd never do anything bad (which I totally don't believe – he's out running around with a glorified taser, zapping things for goodness sake). It doesn't mean his buddies are trustworthy, though. Or Walsh. How can Giles be upset that the Initiative is torturing demons, but be okay with handing over a human to them? Does he think they'll be any less brutal to him? Rayne's a sorcerer – they'd dissect him if they could in order to figure out how he does what he does. If Giles would give over Rayne, who else would he be willing to give over?

Journal Entry: [April 28] … Oz came back and nearly ate Tara. Seems he became angry when he found out Willow didn't wait for him like she'd promised and transformed during the day! Soldiers saw him and kidnapped him (wolf-napped?). We went in and rescued him. Got most of the base shut down in the process. Tried to rescue some of the prisoners, but I don't think we found even half of them. There's probably levels deeper than we've been able to get to so far. Walsh is dead, but her "baby" - Adam – is definitely alive and kicking. He (it?) is a combination of human, cyborg, and demon. Very powerful. Very deadly. I don't think Buffy can handle him on her own.

Journal Entry: [May 20] … Adam's been destroyed. We had to use a spell that helped enhance Buffy's abilities. Good thing, too. Adam nearly tore her apart – he was that powerful. Spent the rest of the day and the next going through the compound. Giles helped Willow go through their files – both hard copies and online. Willow figures some of it could be useful for our purposes; the rest could be used to make sure this kind of thing never happens again. Buffy went through destroying any machinery or equipment - making sure nothing can be used again. Me – I went through the prison section freeing the occupants. It was brutal. Not one being was unscathed. Some of them were just kids. What the military did to them … The vampires were dusted. Two actually begged me to kill them. A few of the more peaceful demons had gone mad and had to be put out of their misery – I had clan-mates help if possible. A few died from their injuries before they could be released. I helped several of them get to the demon clinic in town. Didn't find Rayne. It sounds like a few other prisoners who had been seen around are missing. No one knows if they're dead, escaped, or transferred to another location. Something to look into.

Journal Entry: [May 27] … Spoke with some of the survivors of the compound. At least twelve prisoners are unaccounted for. Three vampires, four humans, a Faryl demon, a Tieba demon, a Gnostic and two Maynars. Not sure what the connection between them is yet. Going to see if I can find any info in the files we downloaded.

Journal Entry: [June 5] … Took a while to find the info in the files. Had to sneak around Willow – I don't want Giles knowing what I'm doing. I'm still uneasy with what he's done – though, in similar circumstances, I can't say that I wouldn't have done the same thing. Expediency. I guess Giles didn't want to kill Ethan himself and perhaps deluded himself that nothing bad would happen to him with the soldiers. However, he hasn't brought up the chaos mage even once during this whole fiasco, so … Anyway, from what I could get out of the files, the vampires are so much dust in the wind. Tieba demons can sense and 'eat' negative energy. Gnostic demons can actually project emotions onto others – usually used as a defensive mechanism to keep from being attacked. Maynars can use magic. The four humans taken: Malorie Walters – initiative witch; Travis McHale – telekinetic; Jeanna Anjou – Cajun voodoo practitioner; Ethan Rayne – chaos sorcerer. So, I found the connection. Still don't know where they are.

Journal Entry: [July 16] … Spoke to Willy. He got me a name of someone who might have more information on where those prisoners ended up. I'm to meet with them in two days. After so many dead ends, I don't plan on holding my breath, but I've come this far. If this doesn't pan out, I'll ask Giles for help.

Anya finished the last entry and gently closed the journal.

So it all boiled down to Ethan Rayne.

The chaos sorcerer had played one too many tricks on Rupert Giles, and despite objections, the Watcher had handed Ethan over to Riley. He had to have known by then what the Initiative was and how it operated.

Anya felt sick.

"Well. I can guess why the others thought you were being distant and moody."

Xander sat beside her on the couch. "Sounds like he had lost faith in Giles. He knew that Giles would eventually hear about anything he told the girls. If he wasn't sure how Giles would react, Xander would have kept things to himself."

"And with them in college and actively trying to exclude you again, it wouldn't have been difficult to keep what you were doing from them."

"So what will you do now?"

If anyone had seen Anya at that moment they would never believe the woman was no longer a Vengeance demon. Her eyes alight with rage, she headed for her work room to gather supplies. It was time to discover exactly who was behind all of this.

888

888

Ethan Rayne – chaos sorcerer; summoner of Egyhon; high priest of Janus – found himself an unwilling guest of the Initiative.

With a few spells he could have easily escaped before they reached their destination. A spell to disorient the pilot so that the helicopter landed; then a bit of misdirection and he'd disappear before the soldier boys even knew what had hit them.

However, the shock he felt at Ripper's ultimate betrayal cut him like a knife and kept him from taking immediate action.

Overwhelming desolation swamped his very being. It felt like his soul had been torn in two. The two had known each other since they were eight years old; each finding a kindred spirit within the other. They had been friends. Mates! Bound together by common ideals; shared experiences; ritual.

Ethan had always abided by the blood oath they swore. At thirteen, neither had families that supported their sons. They swore to stand by each other's side regardless of what life threw at them, and for seven years they did just that.

When Giles allowed his father to indoctrinate him into the Watcher Council, that bond had bent. It was further strained as he turned his back on his prior "mistakes" and completely cut Ethan out of his life.

When Ethan discovered his old friend lived in Sunnydale, he decided to use the opportunity to get a bit of retribution for the way Rupert had treated him. The Halloween spell had been a bit of fun that nearly cost him a few broken ribs; but worth it for the trouble and mess he knew Rupert would have to clean up.

Though Giles probably thought otherwise, when Ethan discovered Eghyon taking out the old group, he knew that their only hope of survival was to pool their resources. Conning the Slayer into taking care of the sleep demon squared them up a bit in his opinion. His actions had saved them both – but Giles still blamed Ethan for what occurred.

Now the band candy – pure genius on his own part if he did say so himself – was payback for the beatings Ethan had endured the last two times he's met up with Giles. Though that Summers bird was quite a woman; Giles should have thanked him for that opportunity. Rayne had been hired by the Mayor as a distraction. If he'd known just what the distraction was covering up, he wouldn't have gone through with it. He might not have many scruples left, but he drew the line at sacrificing infants, not that Ripper would believe him.

So, he turned the nancy-ponce Giles into a Fyral demon. So what? It was much less than what the backstabbing sycophant deserved. He just wanted his friend to acknowledge him again. Why couldn't he see that?

But to hand him over to the Initiative?

He felt the bond that connected them – though slender and fragile after nearly twenty years of neglect – snap at this final betrayal.

The first few weeks went by in a blur of testing, behavior "adjustments," and drugged apathy. Any physical pain he felt paled in comparison to the emotional agony he went through. When he finally began paying attention to his surrounding again it was too late to try and escape. Over the course of his captivity, he frequently prayed to Janus; asking for help, considering escape. Each time his god responded with 'Not yet.' He didn't know what Janus had in mind but decided to obey his god. Weak and heart-sore, he went through the motions of cooperating but paid attention and squirreled away any scrap of information his captors let drop.

He didn't know the location of the base; just that it was not in California. Over the next two months several other prisoners from Sunnydale had been transferred to this base in the hopes of using their abilities in the war effort. Periodically he was forced to work with one or another with varying degrees of success. The soldiers were fond of using their tasers to "encourage" participation.

The Maynar demons simply teleported home one day. Rayne would have laughed at the scurrying and panic that created, only he struggled with disappointment and bitterness that the demons had left the other prisoners behind with no indication that they'd send for help.

Poor little Malorie had only begun using the Craft a year ago. She didn't have enough power or knowledge to be useful to the military group. She disappeared near the end of February. Ethan hoped the young witch had been sent home, but he was realistic enough to realize that she'd probably "died in a tragic accident" arranged by the military.

In March they lost the other two demons and the telekinetic.

There was no real military application for a demon that could sense and 'eat' negative emotions; so the Tieba demon vanished from the testing group.

The Gnostic demon went mad from the captivity. It started projecting random emotions, causing several soldiers to commit suicide. When the higher ups figured out what caused the crushing depression that affected the men, they had the Gnostic put down, but not before they lost nearly a full squad to suicide.

The telekinetic had a brain aneurysm. The military doctors ignored Travis' complaints that the use of his powers gave him massive headaches. They continued testing him, demanding he attempt to move increasingly heavier objects without rest while 'encouraging' him with frequent electrical shocks. In the end, the 28 year old died screaming - blood pouring from his eyes, ears, mouth and nose - trying to shift something the size and weight of a Sherman tank.

When the security measures used to keep him in line increased nearly ten-fold sometime in April, Ethan knew the project lost yet another of their "guests". Less than two weeks after arriving, Jeanna Anjou, a Cajun bruja, escaped with a minimum of difficulty. Her abilities allowed her to capitalize on human nature. She couldn't fool the cameras and sensors, but she could make the people who watched them believe that she quietly sat in her cell when in actuality she strolled down the hallways and out the front door. Ethan knew that if she could have she would have rescued him as well; however when she made her escape his keepers had him in the hanger a few miles away working on a way to protect aircraft from bullets (not that he could – chaos could only do so much).

He resigned himself to doing the military's bidding. Not an easy task; he'd never been one to blithely accept authority. His only consolation was that instead of 'Not yet' his god told him 'Soon'.

888

mid-June

Ethan glanced up from his cot as one of his keepers appeared at the cell door. Escorted down the hall and into the office of the project leader, he could admit to himself his interest as to why they requested his presence. Practically ignored this last week, Ethan hoped that whatever they wanted provided some entertainment for him. The military didn't care to provide anything to their prisoners to alleviate boredom.

"Alright Rayne, you've probably already heard we've had problems with our operation in Sunnydale. Dr. Walsh over-stepped her directives by performing unauthorized experiments upon the soldiers under her command. She also created a Frankenstein-type creature that ran amuck after killing her. We've recently learned that a small group of civilians, along with one of our own, infiltrated the compound, destroyed the creature, and had the entire program shut down after releasing all the subjects and dismantling the equipment."

Rayne stared blandly at the officer that paced in front of him along the length of his office. Lt. Colonel Myers was a no-nonsense kind of man. He performed his duty without allowing personal beliefs or emotion to get in the way of the mission. That the man actively showed his agitation over the fallout from the Initiative collapse scared the mage.

"Brass decided we're pulling out of Sunnydale completely. Before we do that, we're collecting one more subject from the area. We've tried to acquire him before, but he managed to elude us. You are to create a golem of the individual. The plan is to make it appear he committed suicide so that no one will come looking for him." The Lt. Colonel tossed the chaos mage a photograph. "We need it done within a month. As the body will be examined by a forensic coroner, it needs to be able to stand up to a certain level of scrutiny. Give your handler a list of what you require by tomorrow."

Rayne studied the photograph, feeling a thin smile crease his face. Finally; a challenge. He definitely wouldn't be bored anymore.

888

mid-July

Rayne's satisfaction over bringing Ripper inconsolable pain and agony over losing one of his "kids" lasted right up until he saw the goon squad bringing in one Alexander Lavelle Harris.

The young man's face was battered and bruised; one eye swollen shut; a gash on his forehead that still oozed blood; and based on how he held himself gingerly, protecting his side, he either had broken or cracked ribs. The soldiers had not been kind when collecting him.

Rayne had to smirk though. Three of the five soldiers escorting Xander sported similar injuries. They obviously weren't expecting the civilian to put up so much resistance. Despite the fact that they knew this "civilian" had been one of five to bring down the Sunnydale compound. Idiots.

888

mid-October

Rayne couldn't keep the look of shock off his face when Lt. Col. Myers finally concluded that the military's usual measures of breaking a man's resistance had failed and had the chaos mage brought to Xander's cell.

Strapped to the cot – nearly every inch of skin mottled with bruises, cuts, and burn marks from various beatings, an IV port attached to one arm with tape – the boy looked like ten miles of bad road. Several monitors beeped and buzzed, and the mechanical hiss of a respirator assaulting his ears the only indication the young man lived.

Lt. Col. Myers stood off to one side of the door, watching as Rayne drifted over to the bed, examining the prone figure. "Mr. Harris has not deigned to be very cooperative. We've tried physical coercion, but his past has toughened him to that particular means of persuasion. Somewhere along the way he's developed an immunity to our truth serums. It is apparent that mundane means have proven to be less than effective; we will now see how well he fares from a magical approach."

Rayne cleared his throat. "How long has he been unconscious?"

"Two days. The base doctors believe this to be self-induced. We want you to find a way to either wake him or get the information we need from him." Rayne heard the aggravation as well as a smidgen of respect in the Lt Col.'s voice. "We want to know how exactly he and his … colleagues brought down the Initiative; as well as what skills and abilities he and his collaborators may have." The officer left the room, fully expecting his orders to be carried out.

A guard entered with a chair, setting it down and stationing himself beside the door.

Rayne sighed, not appreciating that he'd have an audience, though he didn't expect otherwise. "I'm going to need a white candle, a sprig of thyme, a small bowl of water, and seven drops of virgin's blood."

"Male or female?"

Ethan raised a brow not expecting that response. "Either. It doesn't really matter as long as it's virgin."

Fifteen minutes later, he had his materials as well as a low table to hold it all. Truth be told, he didn't really need all of this to perform this particular spell. However, the time taken to collect the materials and 'perform' the spell allowed him to come up with just what he was going to do once he made contact.

He would rather die than admit how quickly most of his spells could be cast. He rather enjoyed being underestimated. If they knew he could cast most of his spells without component materials, he'd spend his days drugged to the gills any time they didn't have need for his services.

The spell he planned only needed physical contact and a moment to connect his mind to another's. It worked quicker with people who actively accepted the contact; longer if they actively fought the spell or had high defensive walls.

Rattling off an impressive sounding flow of words – just some random Latin strung together – he lit the candle, dipped the thyme in the blood and traced random lines on Xander's temples, his own, then burned the sprig.

Placing a hand on the center of Xander's chest, Ethan closed his eyes and projected.

You had to be careful when entering a person's mind. Some had natural defenses to keep people out. Others actively developed safeguards. He wasn't sure what Xander may or may not have. On the astral plane, damage done could carry over into the physical. Considering the fact that Ethan had been diametrically opposed to Xander's group the last few times they'd met, Ethan didn't expect to get a warm welcome.

A small ivy covered building stood before him. The windows and the doorway had thorns obscuring them. Gingerly, Rayne reached through the vines and rapped three times with the door knocker

A click sounded and the door cracked open. Feeling he'd passed some sort of test, Rayne entered the building.

"Hello? Anyone here?' The front room had two comfortable looking armchairs facing opposite one another across a low circular coffee table. The walls were blank, and no other doors lead from the room. A set of skylights allowed sunlight to illuminate the room, empty save for the table and chairs. He felt watched; the hairs on the back of his neck stood at attention. Unable to locate the direction of his unseen observer, he shrugged and took a seat. "I'd like to speak with you, Mr. Harris."

He blinked and Xander appeared in the seat across from him, head tilted as he studied the older man. A soda can and cup of tea appeared on the table. Waving his hand, Xander offered the tea to Ethan, taking a sip of soda. "Huh. I was right. I'm surprised you're still here."

Rayne blinked again taking an automatic sip of his own beverage. "Excuse me?"

"When I discovered no one had even seen you at the Sunnydale compound, but that a few other prisoners had disappeared, I started nosing around trying to see if the Project had a secondary site. My idea was confirmed when they bushwhacked me and brought me here." He drank more soda. "I'd hoped to find you but really thought you'd be gone with the wind by now. It's been six months."

You couldn't lie mind-to-mind. Misdirect? Yes. Omit? Yes. But a direct lie was impossible. Ethan felt stunned to feel the truth in the young man's statements. He replied almost absently. "Nine actually. It's October. You yourself have been here for three months."

Xander looked surprised. "Really?" He leaned back in his chair, expression thoughtful. "Surprised they haven't killed me yet."

"What?" Ethan didn't know whether to be confused or appalled.

Xander shrugged. "I haven't exactly been cooperative. I injured a few soldiers and doctors when I first got here. I don't ever plan to give them any information on the others. They can't use their truth drugs on me, and I'm too used to pain for it to be something that would get me to crack. The group already thinks I'm dead, so it's not like I've pinned my hopes on a rescue. I don't know why Myers hasn't issued a burn notice yet." Clouds passed over the room darkening in response to Xander's mood.

Raynes shifted in his seat, uncomfortable, and shifted the topic. "What did you mean you hoped to find me?"

Xander gazed steadily at him. "What Giles did was wrong. He had no right to hand you over to the military like he did. When we shut down the compound, I tried to release as many prisoners as possible – no one and nothing deserves what the Initiative did. Is doing. When I realized some of the prisoners had disappeared, I went looking." He shrugged, hands raised, self-depreciating grin upon his face. "Sorry that the cavalry got caught, too."

"Rupert knew I was dangerous. That I could kill you all if I chose to." He wondered why he was defending Giles' actions. "He needed me out of the way while you dealt with the Initiative."

"Then he should have killed you himself."

Ethan wanted to feel shocked and insulted by the statement, but he understood how the young man felt. A clean death was preferable to months of unknown torture. "You're right. He owed me at least that much." His feelings about the young man in front of him had begun to change. Originally he wanted nothing to do with one of Ripper's brats. But this young man had gone looking for him to right the wrong his mentor had caused.

"Why are you still here? I would have thought someone with your abilities would have caused as much chaos as possible and then skipped off on your merry way."

"I'll tell you if you tell me how you defeated the truth serum."

Dark eyes pierced him for a long moment before a smirk crossed his face. "Fair enough. They never gave me any truth serum."

"What? … " Rayne trailed off as another version of Xander, this one in army fatigues with the insignia on his lapels giving him the rank of Captain, appeared in the room.

Xander jerked his head in the soldier's direction. "He got the serum. But since they never asked him any questions, I wasn't compelled to tell the truth." Xander shrugged his shoulders. Captain Harris gave a sardonic salute and vanished, returning to whence he came.

"Where did he come from?"

"Ah ah ah," Xander shook his finger playfully. "We had a deal. I answered your question. You have to answer mine."

Rayne nodded. "You're right. I thought about leaving. But when I prayed to Janus he told me 'not yet'. Now he says, 'soon'." He studied the young man before him. "I won't be surprised if he gives me the okay now."

The two were quiet a moment while they drank their drinks.

"The soldier is your fault."

The statement caught him off-guard. "My fault? How is he my fault?"

A telling glance. "That little Halloween stunt of yours three years ago? I bought a rifle from your shop and became a soldier. Afterward, I kept most of the memories and skills. Luckily, the nightmares have faded somewhat over the years, but I practiced as many of the skills I could in order to keep them fresh in my mind."

"You … you kept the memories? How? Once the spell ended, no one should have remembered what happened." When Xander's expression became guarded, Ethan blinked; shocked that the withdrawal hurt. "Never mind. Lt. Col. Myers says you're in a coma. How badly off are you?"

Xander tilted his head in thought, dark hair hanging in his eyes hiding his expression. "I got a skull fracture when forced to 'spar' with Lt. Jamison a week ago. Two days ago I fell unconscious. Since I heal quicker than most, as long as they don't do anything weird, I should recover in a week or so."

Rayne made a decision. "If you can hang on for two more weeks, we can escape this place together."

"What's in two weeks?"

"Halloween."

Xander nodded. "Okay."

Rayne shifted again in his seat sensing his time was running short. "They want me to either wake you or gather info about you and the others."

Xander rose from his seat. "Tell them the truth. I've got a skull fracture which is what is keeping me under. I'll be out for at least a week. The fracture and accompanying concussion means that until some of that has cleared up you won't be able to get any information that makes any sense through mind contact."

"I won't will I?" Ethan smirked.

"Not if I don't want you to." Xander smirked in return.

888

~My son. You need to leave today or you will both be lost.~

Ethan woke with a start, sweaty and trembling with some unknown terror. All the preparations for escaping with Xander were ready, but Ethan had wanted to wait 'til Halloween when he'd have more power to draw from. However, if his God told him to make his move a day sooner than planned, then he wasn't going to question why.

'Mischief Night – how appropriate.'

Explosions

Fire

Panic

Chaos

Any other time,Ethan would have found a secure place to sit back and gleefully watch the madness around him as buildings collapsed in upon themselves and people ran about screaming away from the situation. A few tried to organize bucket brigades, but would scatter as random clouds of chaos magic drifted over. Now, he staggered across the parking lot with Xander's unconscious form slung over his shoulders hoping everyone was too distracted to notice them. He found an unlocked Suburban and gently laid Xander along the back seat wincing at the low moan and hitching breath the young man gave.

Xander looked worse now than he did two weeks ago. Fresh bruising marked his face, and a gash in his temple still oozed blood. Several ribs shifted beneath Ethan's hand, and he prayed none punctured a lung.

"Hang on, my boy." He brushed hair from Xander's face, then jump-started the car, and left the area just as firetrucks began pulling in.

888

Ethan Rayne drove the first stolen vehicle only as far as the nearest town before abandoning it in a parking lot for another. Not until he'd put over a hundred miles between them and the military base that he felt safe enough to evaluate their situation. Pulling off to the side of the road, he parked behind some bushes in order to check on a still unconscious Xander.

Ethan winced as he got a good look at the younger man's injuries. Fresh bruises covered his torso, creating spectacular purplish black splotches that covered the greenish yellow of older bruises. Gentle fingers prodded, finding at least three ribs that felt unsound. A gash high on his left temple had clotted but had not been treated. The same with numerous cuts and burns that adorned his arms and legs. "They certainly worked you over, didn't they, my boy?"

Eyes narrowed, he eased out of the backseat and began searching the vehicle for anything that could be helpful. Tucked in the glove compartment he found a flash light, a swiss army knife, and a Leatherman utility tool. Twenty dollars in fives and ones had been hidden in the ashtray. Ignoring the portable CD player, he snagged the large stack of napkins in the front console. A gallon jug of water lay on the floor behind the driver's seat. Several maps and atlases lay jammed in the door pocket – he'd check them later. Popping the trunk, Ethan rummaged through the cluttered area finding a sweater, two long sleeved button-down shirts, and a black raincoat. Beneath a black tarp lay a small first aid kit, a case of water, and a cream colored canvas bag with a 'National Teacher's Association' logo. The bag held a box of granola bars, a 'snac pac' of chips, and a binder labeled 'Attendance and Grading Log'.

Ethan chuckled to himself, "Thank the gods for overly prepared, pack rat teachers."

With the windfall, Ethan cleaned Xander up, tended his wounds, and wrapped his ribs with strips cut from the tarp. He eased one of the shirts and the sweater onto Xander's form.

Ethan put on the other shirt and the rain coat to help hide the hospital scrubs he wore, shivering as the temperature began to drop.

From the maps, he discovered they were in Nevada. "Great. Middle of freakin' nowhere." Returning to California wasn't an option. Those in charge would be keeping an eye on Giles and the girls to see if either of them made contact with them. East. They'd go East. Get as far away as they could, as quickly as they could. He nodded to himself, pocketing the maps.

Knowing he'd have to abandon this vehicle as well, he put what he could into the coat – discovering another twenty dollars forgotten in an inside pocket – and the rest in the canvas bag laying it on the passenger seat for easy access. The binder he left in the trunk and used a small spell that would insure both vehicle and binder would return to their owner unmolested once he had no more use for it. It was the least he could do.

888

Two thousand seven hundred miles and forty eight hours later crossing over the border into Vermont, Ethan Rayne finally felt his shoulders relax. "Well, my boy, I believe we are officially as far away as we can get from that military base, still be in the United States, but have further option for fleeing if necessary." He started talking out loud to Xander midway through Colorado. It helped him keep focused and kept the panic at bay. Using the rear view mirror, he glanced at the prone figure in the back seat. "Now if we can just find a place to crash for a bit, we can see about getting you well." Ethan didn't know much about medicine, but Xander hadn't woken even once since they'd escaped the base; that couldn't be a good thing.

He confounded a motel clerk for a room for at least a week. Reluctantly leaving Xander alone, Ethan headed for a place to trade his current vehicle for some cash and information on a healer. He found both at a small park a few miles away.

"Favored of Janus," the being approached and bowed after the human paid Ethan for the car. "You require the services of a healer? How may this one assist one such as you?"

"My companion is injured. It's been three days, and I am unable to wake him. The healing arts are not my forte, and I fear losing him to his injuries."

"This one will help."

"I don't know how I will be able to pay you." The money he got for the car wouldn't last long, and he had a feeling that Xander's condition would require more than just a single healing spell to fix.

"This one is of the Mixiple clan." Ethan brightened, knowing those particular demons were renowned for their healing abilities. Not asking for payment, they loved a challenge, and it was rumored that they got their sustenance somehow from the injuries they healed.

Thanking Janus, Rayne motioned for the being to follow him back to the motel.

Scanning the boy, the being frowned. "Many, many injuries. New, recent, and old, old, old. Some healed wrong. Some never healed. Strange drugs course through his veins. Tricksy-truth and punishment. This one can start the healing, but it will take longer than a single treatment. He is ill. Has been ill. It still lingers. But it can be helped."

Ethan nodded, frowning in thought. Any injuries from before the abduction should have been taken care of by Giles. The Watcher knew enough about first aid to be useful in any given situation and actually had a small talent for healing. Why was the boy in such bad shape? "How long will it take?"

"Weeks. Mayhaps a month. Some easy. Some painful. Have to undo some of what has been done." Pausing, the demon made eye contact with the mage. "Boy has odd spells surrounding him. Not sure what they do. Some feel helpful. Some not. Some are just confusing. Need an Unraveler to pick through the tangled threads." This Mixiple was a Mender – one who could heal physical damage. An Unraveler healed spell damage.

Ethan nodded his permission, his concern for the young man growing.

888

With the help of the Mender and Unraveler, Ethan rented a small shop near the demonic quarter. The place had a small furnished two bedroom apartment above the shop.

"To feel useful again is what you need. This will help you survive while here. Offer your services as a priest of Janus. Then, you can expand as needed once you've established a clientele. In the meantime, you will be close by while the boy heals, and what goes on will not disturb the uninitiated."

They allowed Rayne to observe their work as long as he promised to stay quietly out of the way. A mattress from one of the beds was pulled into the living room to give the Mixiple demons more room to maneuver. Xander lay in the center clad only in a pair of boxers. A murmured phrase and Xander appeared surrounded by a web of multi-colored strings. The two demons circled the prone figure, studying the web which looked dark and sickly in some places, hopelessly tangled in others.

"What is that?" Rayne breathed.

"His aura. Spells. Injuries. Things that may not belong. Things that may not be able to be removed." A sharp hiss sounded and the two healers looked grimly at a wispy looking emerald green strand that lead away from Xander's body. "He is not here. Gone astral. Connecting thread very thin."

"It is green, though. That is good."

"Why is that good?" Rayne asked.

"It means there is hope. The soul is not lost. He has found someone to connect to." The Unraveler pointed at a dark viscous looking strand that had wrapped itself around the area where the green thread connected to Xander. "Not sure what supposed to do. Combination of spell and drug. It pushed him from his position. Until removed, he cannot return." Head tilted, the being studied another section. "Cannot remove it until last. It keeps other spell damage from severing link. Very curious." It pointed at yet another section, "These segments help keep him alive. Spell-work that integrated, became part of. But some struggle with each other."

"What needs to be done?"

"There are layers and layers of spells and injuries. Most interconnected. Some on purpose. Some warped from original intent. Must slowly peel away and untangle or more damage caused."

"But, why is that the case?" Ethan couldn't imagine how anyone's aura could get get to such a point.

"He is an untrained spirit talker. Ones such as he are more susceptible to the Other Realm and spell casting. He has lived close to a source of dark power. It has seeped into his very core. Much care must be taken to release its hold, even then it cannot be removed entirely; too much time has passed."

Due to the complexity, the Mixiple demons could only work a few hours a day. Both agreed the challenge well worth the time needed to invest. Rayne felt privileged to be allowed to witness their progress. Though most of what they did was beyond his skills as a human, he learned quite a bit in the way of spell manipulation.

888

Rayne had a steady stream of customers willing to pay for his services. Some of that payment came in information. From the supernatural grapevine, Rayne kept tabs on the going-ons in Sunnydale and in Nevada.

Giles and his girl continued to keep the Hellmouth contained.

As for the military base; after receiving an anonymous tip that contained encrypted files, CID and NCIS descended with a vengeance; those involved with the Initiative now firmly behind lock and key.

888

December arrived and the two demon healers came to an impasse of sorts. Taking care of one problem revealed yet another potentially deadly one. A tricky knot of spells – both recent and older – wound themselves around Xander's core. While it would be simple to just cut the knot out, doing so would drastically change the boy's personality.

"It interferes with his ability to spirit talk. He should be able to decide how much a spell affects him when dealing with spirits or souls. This caused almost the reverse. Draws things to him. Twists what happens. Leaves him wide open. Can't just cut knot – would short circuit ability, leave him more vulnerable. He only has rudimentary control as it is. Cutting it would remove his empathy. Make him dangerous as he lets his dark side out."

A full week was devoted to patiently tracing each strand; locating their source; establishing their purpose; removing the harmful if able, blending them in better if not; straightening out the beneficial.

888

Ethan sat next to Xander's bed gazing at him critically. The young man's physical injuries had healed; the spell damage of several years had been reduced to a handful of quirks and new skills that Xander would need to learn to control, but he was in no danger of fracturing psychically nor pulling in something that would destroy him.

All he had left to do was wake up.

The Unraveler lay a gentle hand on the mage's arm. "All that can be done, has. Rest up to him."

"Any ideas where he went?" Xander's spirit had not returned in the nearly two months since their escape from the Initiative. Ethan had hoped that as the young man's body strengthened, the spirit would at least return to the general vicinity. All the reading he had done on astral projection told him it was exceedingly dangerous to remain out of your body for too long a time. Entities could attack the soul and sever its link to its body, leaving it wandering, lost in astral space.

The Unraveler appeared unconcerned. "See how the strand is brighter? Stronger? He should be able to follow it home now." Neither demon would have spent as much time as they did healing the boy if they had felt it a wasted effort.

The Mender spoke. "He found someone he cares for, who cares in return. That connection allowed him to be away for so long. Now that the spell that forced him from his body is gone, any confusion he may have felt will clear. The boy will be fine. It is only a matter of time." The two beings bowed to the chaos mage, ran a gentle hand across Xander's brow, and left the small apartment.

"Well, boyo. I guess it's just you and me." Rayne twisted his lips in a wry smile. "Or, until you wake, just me." Straightening out the blankets, Rayne headed for bed wondering just who Xander was "visiting".

888

888

In a hotel room in Los Angeles, Anya shifted in her sleep, her dreams full of color, sound, and chaotic images of a cold sterile laboratory, beatings, explosions, and a dense fog that slowly cleared.

~ Wake up, Ahn. ~

Blinking her eyes, she spotted Xander sitting cross-legged at the end of her bed, illuminated by the moonlight streaming in through the window, an oddly tender look in his eye. She sat up, turning on the bedside lamp.

"Up for a trip?"

Anya tried to think through a sleep-befuddled brain. Something was off, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it. "Where to?"

"Vermont."

"What's in Vermont?"

"Ethan Rayne."

Rubbing her eyes, Anya paused in mid motion. Dropping her hands, she stared at him, head tilted. "Rayne? How do you know?" Nothing in her research indicated Vermont as a possibility as a place the chaos mage might hole up in. So why would her sub-consciousness connect the two? Her eyes narrowed still trying to figure out what was different.

Xander glanced down at his hands, a familiar self-conscious gesture that she hadn't seen him use since before she left Sunnydale. "'Cause that's where he's taking care of me."

Sleepiness blew away in a rush at the first-person reference. "Xander?" she whispered.

He nodded. "I'm not sure exactly what happened, but for the first time in months, I feel clear-headed. Like a haze has been lifted. Whatever Ethan did or had done made the difference. It was like I was being blocked from who I was." He pointed at a bright emerald green cord that lead off toward the East.

"How did you end up with me?" She could see the changes; a sharper outline, less transparent, and the general feel of a living soul radiated off him.

His head tilted to one side and his eyes lost focus, remembering. "Ethan had a plan to free us on Halloween. The day before, the officers and medics decided to try one last thing to get me to talk. Some new drug and combined science with magic." He shuddered in remembered pain and Anya wished she could take back her question. "It burned through my veins; I'd never felt such pain before. It hurt worse than anything I'd ever imagined. I thought I would die, but I didn't want to give them the satisfaction. I blacked out. Next thing I know, I'm in some type of void, weak as a kitten, wondering if I would end up staying there for all eternity." He stopped again, dark eyes locking on hers. "I heard you. You'd used my name, asked a question, and I felt myself respond. You accepted me – and that formed a connection that kept me from being swept back into the astral void. By the time you'd returned to Sunnydale, I had enough energy to manifest to you." He reached forward and brushed his hand against her cheek. "I've missed you, Ahn."

She felt her eyes well with tears at the soft touch and she smiled. "Now what?"

"Vermont's too far away for me to travel on my own. Even with the haze gone, I'd get lost. Since I'm connected to you for the time, the closer you get to my body, the stronger my connection to it will be. If we're in the same room, I should be able to return and wake up."

Anya agreed immediately. "Traveling by car will be the easiest way. This close to the holidays, there's no way we'd be able to get a flight out that way. We can get there in about four days. Can you last that long?"

"With you I can."

888

888

Six o'clock in the morning of December 25th, a steady, insistent knocking woke Ethan Rayne from a sound sleep. Putting on a robe and slippers, he padded down the hallway. A swift glance as he passed Xander's room showed no change, and Ethan struggled not to allow disappointment to swamp him. Four days had passed since the Mixiple demons had finished their healing, and Rayne had had no luck in locating Xander's spirit in the astral. He feared the young man would be lost forever, despite the prior assurances.

The knocking continued with no indication the person on the other side would tire anytime soon. In fact, the rhythm had changed to the distinctive pattern of 'Jingle Bells'.

"What?" he growled as he flung open the door, scowl firmly in place.

The young woman on the step grinned up at him. "Winter Festival Solicitations," she chirped, shoving a travel mug of what smelled like warm eggnog into his hands.

A shudder ran down his spine as a cold breeze moved past him.

She lifted a box. "Xander said it was polite to bring a gift when arriving at someone's home unannounced. Donuts?"

When he made no immediate reply in his shock, she shrugged and entered the apartment, depositing the box onto the coffee table. As he bemusedly shut the door, she began unwinding her scarf and unbuttoning her coat.

"I had a devil of a time trying to get here. I've never driven in snow. And Xander was no help – he'd only ever seen the stuff once in his life. I hope we'll be able to handle the cold after living in California for so long. I know Xander's terribly thin blooded at times. Of course, you've lived in England and it gets cold there, though not nearly as cold as this, so you'll probably be okay." She shivered dropping the garments over the arm of a chair. "So why Vermont?"

She was like a whirlwind, and he had to scramble to keep up. He latched onto the last question. "It was the furthest I could get with the condition Xander was in and not having passports. If we really needed to, though, I could smuggle us over the border and into Quebec."

"Sensible plan. I can see why Xander admires you so much." She'd continued through the living room and into the hallway that led to the bedrooms.

"Now wait just one bloody moment, miss..." he began, alarmed.

"Anya."

That brought him up short. He thought he recognized that name. "What?"

"Anya. My name." She shot him a look. "We're both on the same side here, you know. Looking out for Xander's best interests. So, I figure you might as well use my name." She entered Xander's room, made a bee-line for his bed, and reached for his hand.

Ethan followed, jaw dropping as Xander's dark eyes opened.

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Epilogue:

Turning a page in his book, Xander relaxed in an armchair located in the small reading nook of 'By Bell, Book, and Candle' – the shop he had one third ownership of.

He glanced up with a smile, watching his not-so-silent partners playfully bicker over what needed to be ordered to restock the store. Their business was doing well with a well-establish local clientele and a slowly growing online business. Both Ethan and Anya pooled their magical knowledge in order to stock the store with only the best and to provide customers with spells as needed; Anya got a business degree and gleefully kept the books in order; Xander provided insight and ideas for growth, as well as warnings when a customer wasn't all they appeared.

Once he regained his strength from being bedridden for so long, Xander located another spirit talker, an Abenaki Shaman. The Native American had explained several things to him and set him on the path to find his own control.

With the changes the Mixiple demons made in order to heal him, Xander had to spend quite some time learning how to control his abilities as a medium, as well as finding he had a small talent for chaos magic (not that Ethan ever doubted that for a second!). Having spent two months out of body, Xander found it too easy to go astral if he wasn't paying attention to what he was doing. So he worked on his control and wore an amulet that would help him find his way back should he wander unexpectedly as an extra precaution.

Coming into his own as a medium meant that he got frequent visitors from the other side. Or, as he liked to put it, "I see dead people." Some wanted justice; some just wanted messages passed on to loved ones. A few, however, felt that since possession was nine tenths of the law, they'd take advantage of a newbie medium – a decision they regretted as the full integration of his mental 'guests' meant he had surprisingly powerful protections against intruders.

Three months after waking, Xander proposed to Anya.

A silly grin crossed his face as he remembered the way she'd said 'Yes!'

As for Ethan, the two became close friends during Xander's recuperation. Xander knew he owed his life to the chaos mage.

"Perhaps. But I would never have thought of you as anything other than one of Ripper's holier-than-thou brats had you not gone searching for me. That determination to go your own way regardless of what your friends want is what I admire about you. You keep me on my toes."

Xander chose Ethan as his best man.

After discussing it with the others, Xander had decided to "stay dead". Through the supernatural grapevine, he knew Willow and Buffy had grieved over his 'death', taking out a large number of the denizens of the night in their anger and confusion. Now, they were healing emotionally. Reappearing now would only throw them off-kilter again – possibly getting them killed in the process.

Besides, they'd demand he come home. Xander never wanted to return to the Hellmouth. Sunnydale held few good memories – the bad and horrific far outweighed any nostalgia over the place. His newly found control over his abilities wouldn't stand up to the Hellmouth energies at this time, anyway.

No. Things were better this way. He'd found a place where he belonged.

He drank his coffee and smiled. He was home.

Began 11/3/2011

Ended 12/2/2011

Edited 12/23/2011

Word Count: 12787